Having “the talk” with your teen is a notorious aspect of parenting. Few parents look forward to the day when they have to talk to their son or daughter about safe sex practices and responsible dating.
But—as pressure from friends, society and pop culture mounts—it’s important to face these conversations head on rather than avoid them because you or your child feel uncomfortable.
“Parents are the most important source of education and information for their children. This is true in every aspect of life, but especially during puberty, when teens can be impressionable and are bombarded with messages about dating, sex and intimacy at every turn,” says Beverly Eisenhuth, DO, OB/GYN at Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health.
According to research available from the Guttmacher Institute, teenagers in the United States have sex for the first time at age 17. But, for teenagers, it can feel like “everyone is doing it” even younger than that.
“Although many teens may start having sex at 17, there are also those who start much younger. Unfortunately, many parents don't believe that their teen might be engaging in sexual activity. Often, parents have a discussion about sex with their teen too late, after their teen has already started sexual activity. This obviously leads to increased STD exposure and unintended pregnancy. It's important for parents to start the discussion much younger than age 17,” says Dr. Eisenhuth.
So, how can you start a conversation about sex with your teen that feels relatable, but still gives them the information they need to make responsible decisions?
Establish an open and honest environment
As a parent, it can be difficult to start a conversation with your son or daughter about sex—especially if you aren’t comfortable with them engaging in any kind of sexual behavior.
Start the conversation by making your feelings clear. Say something like: “This makes me uncomfortable, too, but I think it’s important for us to talk about.” By starting a conversation, you can establish an environment where your teen may be more likely to come to you in the future when they have questions or concerns about themselves or a partner.
While there are many issues you’ll cover in your conversation with your teen, Dr. Eisenhuth covers some important highlights of “the talk” below.
Preventing sexually transmitted diseases
A discussion of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and how to prevent them should be part of any conversation on safe sex. Unlike pregnancy, which is a risk that is specific to heterosexual couples, STDs can affect partners of any sexual orientation and be transmitted through vaginal, anal and oral sex.
“Most STDs are easy to treat but the sooner they can be treated, the better. Unfortunately, some teens don’t receive any education on how to protect themselves from STDs and, if they do contract one, don’t feel comfortable turning to a parent or guardian for help,” says Dr. Eisenhuth.
Talk to your teen about the importance of using protection—like a condom—to prevent the spread of STDs in them and in their partner. You can also ask your family doctor or gynecologist about annual STD screenings.
Birth control options
If your teen does decide to explore a sexual relationship with their partner, it’s important that they have knowledge of their options for birth control. In many instances, a discussion of birth control options can be a learning experience for parents, too.
“There are many effective and easy-to-use options available to teens today that weren’t available even as recently as 10 years ago,” says Dr. Eisenhuth.
The majority of these new options are for women. In addition to the traditional birth control pills, girls’ options for birth control now also include:
- Birth control implant
- Birth control patch
- Birth control shot
- Vaginal ring
- Intrauterine device (IUD)
While each of these options have been effective in preventing pregnancy, they do not prevent the spread of STDs. Talk to your daughter about the importance of using condoms in conjunction with birth control to protect against STDs, and further reduce the likelihood of pregnancy.
Of course, birth control isn’t just a conversation for your daughter. If your son is sexually active, talk to him about the importance of using condoms with his partner to prevent pregnancy as well as the spread of STDs.
If you need help choosing the best birth control option or if you’re looking for an explanation of what options are available, your family doctor or a gynecologist can help.
The power to say ‘no’
While it might feel like conversations about sex are at a fever pitch during adolescence, it’s important to remind your son or daughter that—at any point—they have the power to say no.
“Having a conversation about sex isn’t complete without a conversation about consent, too,” says Dr. Eisenhuth. “Preventing sexual assault, rape and sexual violence is just as important as conversations about preventing pregnancy and STDs.”
Remind your teen that just because their friends or peers may be engaging in sexual behaviors doesn’t mean they should feel pressured to—abstaining from sex is okay, too. And, if they are sexually active, talk to your son or daughter about the importance of consent before engaging in any sexual behavior.
Showing intimacy in other ways
Having “the talk” with your teen is an opportunity to start a conversation about other ways, besides intercourse, to demonstrate intimacy in a relationship. While this can include physical alternatives—like holding hands, kissing or cuddling—it might also include displays of affection.
Flip the script and ask your teen: “How do you know that I love you?” or “How do you know that I love my partner?” Their answer will likely lead to a discussion of how loving gestures, making memories and sharing in mutually enjoyable activities can be intimate in its own way.